Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Owatonna exhibit celebrates Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World October 8, 2013

MILK COURSES through my veins, for I am the daughter of a dairy farmer.

Inside the Wegners' barn, where dairy products come from.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Ron and Diane Wegner’s rural Faribault dairy barn.

Growing up, I labored in the barn beside my dad and siblings—feeding cows, bedding straw, lugging pails of milk to the bulk tank, washing milking machines, scraping manure and more.

I smelled of cow, watched bovines’ tails flick flies and rise to release streams of splashing hot pee into barn gutters.

Sandpaper rough tongues sometimes grated across my skin. Cold, wet noses dampened the sleeves of my chore coat.

I carried gallons of frothy fresh milk to the house for pasteurization and consumption.

The Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition is a part of Minnesota culture. The Steele County exhibit features  photos of past county dairy royalty, including 1978 princess Kari Schroht, left, and 1976 princess Kathy Zeman, right. Earlier carved butter heads from past princesses were displayed in borrowed glass door freezers at the history center.

The Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition is a part of Minnesota culture. A current exhibit at the Steele County History Center features photos of past county dairy royalty, including 1978 princess Kari Schroht, left, and 1976 princess Kathy Zeman, right. Earlier this year, carved butter heads from recent past princesses were displayed in borrowed glass door freezers at the history center.

I knew cows and milk and once competed for Redwood County, Minnesota, dairy princess, a title I coveted but could not win because I lacked the poise and confidence and beauty to represent the industry.

A banner welcomes visitors to the Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna.

A banner welcomes visitors to the Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World exhibit at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna.

These memories flit through my mind as I consider a recent visit to the Steele County History Center in Owatonna to tour the featured exhibit, Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World.

The exhibit is interesting and educational.

The exhibit is interesting and educational.

It’s a must-see exhibit which will trigger memories for those who grew up on dairy farms and educate those who didn’t. And, even with my dairying background, I learned a lot about the history of dairy farming in Steele County.

A vintage sign promoting butter in Minnesota.

A vintage sign promoting butter in Minnesota.

For example, Steele County gained its world-wide Butter Capitol reputation after Owatonna Manufacturing Company invented the mechanized butter churn in 1893, revolutionizing the dairy industry.

But two decades prior, in 1873, the county was well on its way to establishing a strong dairy reputation with four local cheese factories producing 150,000 pounds of cheese, more than any other Minnesota county.

Information and artifacts from the days of bottled milk delivery.

Information and artifacts from the days of bottled milk delivery.

At one point, Steele County boasted two dozen-plus creameries.

Coveted butter

Hope Creamery, south of Owatonna, still produces coveted, award-winning Grade A butter in small batches. Butter boxes from Steele County creameries are displayed behind glass in the exhibit.

In December 1926, thieves stole 19 tubs of butter valued at $700 from the Steele Center Creamery.

Two Steele County women, Mina Holmes and Marianne McRostie, won numerous national awards for their hand-churned butter.

Photos of some spectacular Steele County barns are showcased.

Images of some spectacular Steele County barns are showcased.

Yes, so many accomplishments led to this southern Minnesota county holding the title of Butter Capitol of the World from 1898 – 1940, says Jerry Ganfield, who along with a committee of four women involved in the dairy industry, created this remarkable exhibit. Ganfield, holds a background in communications and marketing, grew up in Iowa and worked one summer during college as a milkhouse operator. Today he lives in a barn turned house near Bixsby and volunteers with the Steele County Historical Society, serving on its board of directors.

A portion of the expansive exhibit on Steele County's dairy industry.

A portion of the expansive exhibit on Steele County’s dairy industry.

Work on the Butter Capitol exhibit began in January with the historic display debuting in mid-July. It runs through November 10. Eventually, many of the items will be returned to the farm machinery building in the Village of Yesteryear (next to the Steele County History Center) where most were previously displayed.

Visitors can get down low and check out the udder on the model cow in the photo above.

Visitors can get down low and check out the udder on a model cow.

Perhaps I am a bit biased being a dairy farmer’s daughter and all. But this exhibit is one of the most impressive, thorough, detailed and interesting I’ve seen in a county history center.

Just another view of a portion of the exhibit.

Just another view of a portion of the exhibit.

Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World is well worth a drive to Owatonna to peruse.  Just give yourself two hours, minimum, to tour the display.

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BONUS PHOTOS:

Vintage signs are abundant in the exhibit.

Vintage signs are abundant in the exhibit.

This tin toy barn, right, caught my eye. I've never seen one prior to this. The exhibit also features an incredible handcrafted replica of a barn.

This tin toy barn, right, caught my eye. The exhibit also features a handcrafted replica of a barn.

A familiar site to me, a cow in a stantion.

A familiar site to me, a cow in a stantion.

Also familiar, those Surger milkers in the background display.

Also familiar, those Surger milkers in this display. My dad used these before he installed a pipeline.

Indian Maid Feeds memorabilia is displayed in glass cases along with an impressive collection of butter molds and other items.

Indian Maid Feeds memorabilia is displayed in glass cases along with an impressive collection of butter molds and other items. Indian Maid Feeds was sold from the late 1950s – 1984 by Owatonna Elevator Company. The brand pictured an Indian maiden to recall the legend of Princess Owatonna, whose health was restored by drinking the mineral spring waters of the area. The exhibit also features a large wooden logo of the princess that once rested atop the elevator. You’ll need to visit the exhibit to see that vintage art.

FYI: To learn more about the Steele County History Center/Historical Society, housed in a fabulous new building opened in April 2012, click here.

The Steele County History Center encourages kids to join its Time Travelers Club and History Detectives. The detectives meet at 10:15 a.m. and the travelers at 6:30 p.m. the first Thursday of each month at the History Center, 1700 Austin Road, Owatonna.

Click here to read a Minnesota Public Radio story about Hope Creamery.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

27 Responses to “Owatonna exhibit celebrates Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    I am a holstein fan. 🙂 Great tour of all things dairy related. Love the “fake” cow in the stantion.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      That’s what we had on our farm, Holsteins, typically the most common breed on dairy farms in southwestern Minnesota. My mom’s Uncle Bill though, had Brown Swiss and I loved those cows with their big brown eyes. Bill and his wife lived about 50 miles away, so we seldom saw them. But when we visited, I always made a trip to the barn, which was a walk-up barn, even more intriguing.

  2. Mere Frost Says:

    Hi and Good morning!
    The only thing worse is the smell of pigs on your clothes, in your hair and in your nose!!!! Yeck! LOL
    I really enjoyed this! I remember the glass bottles that were delivered to our house back east! Nice cold milk with cream at the top! There was a dairy farm and pig farm not too far from us. And a turkey farm! Far enough away! 😉 I grew up on a salt water bay…so the wind off the water blew in with fresh clean smelling air on every breeze!
    My hubby and his dad had dairy cows, horses, pigs, sheep, chickens and farmed as well. I think that is amazing! I married into this life and found my niche. I love the life! Never dull and working side by side with my best friend whom I love with all my heart is the best job in the world.
    Thank you for sharing your life! I have a great appreciation for it!
    Have a wonderful day neighbor! 😀

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Mere, it’s a delight to have you here as a reader of Minnesota Prairie Roots. I’m already enjoying your detailed, honest and humorous comments.

      As for those pigs… My siblings and I always thought pigs smelled. That’s because we weren’t used to the odor of swine. I bet the kids raised on farms with pigs thought we smelled. Of cow.

      I love the part of your comment where you write about marrying into this life and loving the side by side work with your best friend. That everybody should find the happiness you’ve found in your life. You have a good day, too, neighbor.

  3. One of the girls I taught while I taught high school went on to become Princess Kay – 11 years ago, I think. She was the 50th one. I just wrote an article about her for the Globe last week. Not about that, though. Looks like a great exhibit!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, Steele County: Butter Capitol of the World is an outstanding exhibit. So much time and effort invested in making this one top-notch informational packed educational exhibit.

      I love the whole Princess Kay of the Milky Way tradition.

  4. Loving the tour and the great captures – mmm BUTTER:) I was just in California dairy country and back in July toured the Tillamook Cheese Factory – love learning about where the food you eat comes from! Have a Great Day

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Margarine will never replace butter in my house. Love cheese, too. Have not toured a cheese factory. Like you, I would find that interesting.

      • There is just something about butter, especially cooking with it! Margarine does not make a grilled cheese sandwich, but BUTTER DOES!!!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Absolutely agree with you on butter.

      • Mere Frost Says:

        Same here!!! Butter butter butter!!!! LOL I don’t care what scientific nonsense they try to feed us….butter in my humble opinion is much healthier than chemicals molded into some unreasonable facsimile! Amen! 😀

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Here’s to butter, with typically only two ingredients, cream and salt (and sometimes not even salt). Margarine, on the other hand, contains a long list of ingredients.

      • Mere Frost Says:

        I am little! 5′ 2″ and about 130! Small frame. My feet next to everyone else’s shoes look like a 6 year olds shoes! LOL I sink in the mud and they all keep right on trucking! 😉 Everyone out here towers over me! I get a crick in my neck sometimes from looking up!!!! 😀 But for my size…but I make up for it all with enthusiasm and high energy!!!! LOL

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        I can tell. Energy and enthusiasm and passion will take you a long way. Never mind the height.

      • Mere Frost Says:

        My message got put in the wrong place! Sorry Audrey! Look up above in the butter butter butter!!! 😉

  5. Jackie Says:

    Oh I think you would have been the perfect dairy princess, but I guess only one person gets to win :/
    I remember being at my Aunt & Uncles when they milked, I never got to help but the sight, smell and sounds are still vivid in my mind. I actually love the smell on a cow barn….is that weird?

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      That is not weird to love the smell of a dairy barn. You tie the smell to sweet memories of your aunt and uncle.

      • Jackie Says:

        True 🙂 They still farm in Decorah, My cousin is really doing most of the work but my near 80 year old aunt and uncle are right out there in the barn pitchin-in, They love it…it’s what they do!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        And I bet they are fit as fiddles. You and Rick ought to make a trip to Decorah soon. I bet it’s beautiful down there right now. I still have lots of stories to share from our visit to Decorah and northeastern Iowa this past summer. Too many photos and stories and not enough time…

  6. Once again, we have that in common…daughter of a dairy farmer…my parents bought a farm when I was quite young. 7 if I remember, they only had it a few years.. (my dad was also an IBM’er). But those years helping milk cows, calfs being born, pig chasing, egg collecting were some of the best memories of my childhood. I remember begging my Dad to wake me early to do the morning chores before school.
    Country life is in my blood…for sure!
    Great exhibit…

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I loved doing chores, too, and always told my dad I wanted to work outside and in the barn, not in the house. Country gets in your blood for sure.

      If you have not seen the exhibit in Owatonna, make a point of seeing it. That whole history center and Village of Yesteryear are fantastic.

  7. Thread crazy Says:

    Boy does that bring back memories for me. Being raised part of my life in Ohio, we had many dairy farms. My Mom always talked about her heritage – being raised on a working dairy farm. In fact she milked by hand 21 cows twice a day – even on her wedding day! Great exhibit and thanks for posting.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      The exhibit is an excellent one.

      Twenty-one cows milked on her wedding day. I’m impressed.

  8. Mere Frost Says:

    My in-laws are 86 and 92 and my step-dad is 93! All lived and worked on farms!!! So there is more proof! All strong and healthy!!! My step-dad is now retired. But my in-laws work right beside me!!! Holey buckets! 😀 Me? I am the weak link! LOL But I try to keep up! 😀


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